Obituary: Leo Valiani

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IN LATER life, with a touch of his characteristic contrariness, Leo Valiani would remember the high-security prison at Civitavecchia, near Rome, as an oasis of freedom.

He was banished there in 1931 by the Mussolini regime's special tribunal, for his anti-Fascist beliefs. The 23-year-old Communist sympathiser from Fiume found himself amongst Fascist Italy's leading left-wingers, swapping ideas with the ideologues of dissent. With those same ideologues, Valiani left for exile in France once he was released. And, with their words ringing in his ears, he made his way to Spain in 1936.

It was while he was in Spain, however, that Valiani had his first doubts about the Communism he had espoused at such a cost: he began to question Stalin's policies, and his treatment of Trotsky's followers. When Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939, the spell was definitively broken. Yet Valiani, loyal even to ideals which for him had become tarnished, accompanied his former comrades into the Vernet concentration camp where the French authorities were hurriedly interning anyone perceived as a left-wing threat. And for months, not prepared to abandon his friends to their fate and earn himself an easy ticket out of prison, he concealed the fact that he had shifted his loyalties from the Moscow-oriented Italian Communist Party to the anti-Fascist, social democratic Partito d'Azione.

Valiani made his way back to his native country by a circuitous route, which took him via enclaves of Italian exiles in the United States and Mexico, before he returned to an Italy where the Allies were making their way up from the south, and where Mussolini had fled from Rome to make a last-ditch stand in the German-occupied north. As a leader of the Partito d'Azione in the north, Valiani helped organise the final partisan uprising on April 1945, and put his signature to the document ordering the execution of the captured Fascist dictator.

Though Valiani held a seat in the Italian senate for the last 19 years of his life, his real political career was short-lived. A national hero, he was elected in 1946 to the Constituent Assembly of the newly formed Italian Republic, only to see his Partito d'Azione ideals of a capitalist system with a social democratic face trampled under the conflicting interests of the larger Communist and Christian Democrat parties. He took refuge in his historical studies, becoming an expert in Middle European affairs, while keeping up what he considered to be his true career, as a journalist. For 35 years, he wrote for the news weekly Espresso.

Valiani was a moral beacon in a country which still admires the spirit which marked the heroes of the wartime Resistance. He imbued even his earliest studies of the Fascist era with the kind of even-handedness that only someone of his stature could get away with: "The spirit blows where it wills," he wrote in 1945, in his semi-autobiographical Tutte le strade portano a Roma ("All Roads Lead to Rome"), attributing his own anti-Fascism to a twist of fate.

"For a few years now it has been blowing on anti-Fascists of all tendencies. That doesn't mean, however, that Fascists have never been touched by its breeze."

Leo Valiani, historian, journalist and politician: born Fiume, Italy 9 February 1909; married (one son); died Milan 18 September 1999.